The practical significance of reconciliation in Northern Ireland falls into four distinct phases:
Setting the tone (1985–97)
The division of citizens into antagonistic ethno-political groups had defined society and politics in Northern Ireland since the 1920s, and included separation in residence, education and leisure. For both Unionism and Republicanism, justice and sustainable peace could only be pursued through victory and political control. As violence escalated, reconciliation was the preserve of isolated and politically inconsequential groups of activists. As polarisation deepened in the 1980s, inter-governmental partnership on security and stability gradually emerged as the only viable alternative to chaos and confrontation.
The Anglo-Irish Agreement concluded that ‘diminishing divisions and achieving lasting peace and stability’ and ‘the need for continuing efforts to reconcile and to acknowledge the rights of the two major traditions’ took precedence over territorial sovereignty or assumed support for sides.
Apart from a declared destination, however, the policy implications of reconciliation remained undefined. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) rejected the Anglo-Irish Agreement, while Unionists organised protests and a campaign of civil disobedience. The formal agreement did elicit American and European support through the establishment of an International Fund for Ireland (IFI), which prioritised economic growth and social cooperation – the exploration of reconciliation could now also be pursued through community action. The IFI and EU promotion of redevelopment as well as engagement and dialogue cultivated a bottom-up peace process engaging community activity and partnership. All of this contributed to a wider atmosphere of dynamic change.
However, this phase also saw a shift from the framing of reconciliation in the Anglo-Irish Agreement as a shared inter-governmental goal to one requiring all-party negotiations. While Unionist failure to block the Agreement ultimately led to further talks, both Governments were also convinced that dialogue with Republicans was necessary, conditional on the suspension of violence. A fragile ceasefire among the largest paramilitary organisations appeared to open the door.
External intervention also provided momentum: proposals by US Special Envoy for Northern Ireland Senator George Mitchell provided a path to overcome the impasse on disarmament that would enable both Unionists and Republicans to engage in direct negotiations. The ‘Mitchell Principles’ – that paramilitary decommissioning was neither a prerequisite of negotiation nor dependent on the outcome of talks, but should proceed in parallel with them – created sufficient political room for the British and Irish governments to call for negotiations.
Through the ups and downs of the negotiations that eventually produced the 1998 Belfast Agreement, reconciliation was the rhetorical device used to promote inter-community partnership. In parallel with attempts to kick-start the political process, the UK Government promoted community relations activity, integrated education and increased participation in communities, including by those with connections to paramilitary organisations. The Irish Government set up a Fund for Peace and Reconciliation and a Forum to encourage dialogue. With the approval of the two governments, the EU also established an enormous ‘Special Support Programme for Peace and Reconciliation’ which focused on peacebuilding, social inclusion and restarting a conflict-affected economy.
1998: A Constitution for reconciliation?
The Belfast Agreement depended on establishing legitimacy for shared governance arrangements on the basis of a definitive end to violence, agreement on constitutional principles and institutions, and guarantees of citizen equality. The implicit retreat by all sides from incompatible assertions of cultural and territorial domination was reconfigured as a common aspiration to reconciliation. The Agreement committed to ‘fostering agreement and reconciliation’ and to ‘removing the causes of conflict, to overcome the legacy of history and to heal the divisions’. Parties identified specific areas where reconciliation has a particular contribution: in acknowledging and addressing the suffering of the victims of violence, in developing mutual understanding and respect between communities, and in promoting a culture of tolerance.
Despite its high aspirations, much of the Agreement lacked detail. While the scale of constitutional agreement was unprecedented, aspirational commitments to reconciliation left questions of implementation unresolved. This was perhaps essential, insofar as further attempts to establish commitments might well have come at the cost of delaying, or even preventing, the Agreement’s completion. However, these were indeed serious omissions, given that they included core issues of disarmament, the timetable for implementing devolution, responsibility for past violence, the role of victims, the status of released prisoners, and content of future changes to policing, community relations and rights. Furthermore, in the ensuing referendum Sinn Féin sought support on the basis that the deal was temporary and ‘transitional to a united Ireland’, while the pro-Agreement Unionist leadership emphasised that it ‘copper-fastened the Union’ with Great Britain.
While responsibility for implementation lay in London and Dublin, the political heart of reconciliation depended on power sharing in a devolved Northern Ireland Assembly. Government was to be rigorously consociational, complete with mandatory coalition, separate designation of elected representatives, and a requirement for mutual consent and the potential for veto. Despite all of these safeguards it rapidly became clear that without the mediation of governments, politics in Northern Ireland very quickly dissolved into recrimination and the potential for renewed antagonism. Paradoxically, it was unclear whether the Agreement’s core aspiration – reconciliation – could survive implementation of its primary political vehicle – devolved government, which was riddled with ambivalence over a shared future.
Rescuing reconciliation? (1998–2007)
Despite a referendum producing a 70 per cent domestic majority in favour of the Agreement, four uncertainties still obstructed implementation:
- There was no timetable for paramilitary disarmament and no agreement over who was responsible for delivery or what consequences would flow from failure.
- The Agreement provided no guidance on dealing with the legacy of violence. Victim suffering was acknowledged, but there was no recognition of responsibility, or clarity as to how this would be taken forward. Meanwhile paramilitary prisoners were released early, but their criminal records were not expunged.
- Policing reform was agreed in principle, but the outcome still depended on the deliberations of an international commission.
- Commitments to address profoundly contentious issues such as rights, community relations, equality, symbolism and culture remained undefined.
The absence of clarity over disarmament proved toxic to power sharing. In the context of increasingly bitter recrimination, the Assembly collapsed, and political leadership passed to anti-Agreement Unionists and Sinn Féin.
Under renewed direct rule from 2002–07, the Irish and British governments relied on a combination of public policy and civil society to maintain the momentum of reconciliation. For example, the Patten Commission report proposed root and branch reform of policing including a changed name, badge and uniform, an independent Police Ombudsman and a new focus on accountability, representativeness, community policing and human rights. These proposals gained the unequivocal support of the British, Irish and US governments as well as the backing of wider Irish nationalism, and eventual acquiescence of Unionists. Sinn Féin found itself increasingly isolated.
Alongside policing reform, London engaged directly with civic activists on policy change intended to promote reconciliation. Many activists, especially those working on projects supported by the various funding programmes, were anxious to see the principles developed in small-scale local projects applied across the full range of government services. After wide-ranging consultation with civil society and local government, far-reaching proposals to prioritise inter-community relations were launched in 2005 under the title A Shared Future, declaring that ‘separate but equal is not an option’ and that ‘parallel living and the provision of parallel services are unsustainable, morally and economically’. The primary vehicle for translating this into practice was the €1 billion made available through the EU Special Support Fund for Peace and Reconciliation (PEACE II) from 2000–04, and IFI. These explicitly supported civil society reconciliation and peacebuilding efforts in communities affected by violence and polarisation.
Inter-community partnership at grassroots and local government level, once largely confined to small-scale dialogue and initiatives on specific issues, expanded rapidly into a myriad of increasingly sophisticated and targeted projects. These included: investment in shared capital projects and strategic planning; support programmes for victims and survivors; systematic engagement with former prisoners and combatants from all sides; projects involving the police; human rights promotion; work in schools and with young people; economic regeneration; cross-border connections; and work to reduce tensions at interfaces or between churches.
Despite the political impasse, a significant consensus emerged on the conceptual core of reconciliation. Research by Brandon Hamber and Gráinne Kelly identified five interrelated elements:
- Developing a shared vision of an interdependent, fair society.
- Acknowledging and dealing with the past, including mechanisms for justice, healing and restoration. /li>
- Building positive relationships following violent conflict.>/li>
- Significant attitudinal change towards a culture of respect for human rights and differences.
- Substantial social, economic and political change to address legitimate grievances, identified inequality and injustice.
The formulation’s simplicity was striking, and it was immediately adopted by funding programmes.
Belated clarity about the content of reconciliation was, however, of much less immediate significance than the imperative of restoring self-government and ensuring the absence of violence. Realistically, the participation of anti-Agreement Unionists depended on the commitment to an end to IRA violence, and at minimum cost to traditional community antagonisms.
Indeed, reconciliation, with its holistic agenda and emphasis on integration, sharing and cooperation, ran almost entirely contrary to this short-run objective. At St Andrews in 2006, the Governments re-engineered the Belfast Agreement to further limit the content of partnership as a means to facilitate partnership in practice. The prerogative of ensuring a sustainable truce (containment) trumped aspirational transformation (reconciliation).
Peace without reconciliation? (2007–present)
Renewed devolved government in 2007 was the triumph of realpolitik. While images of mortal enemies sitting on the same sofa suggested transformation, devolution was in reality a carefully managed retreat. Inclusive government was established because the key parties concluded that any alternative was worse. For Sinn Féin, apparent concessions on policing and decommissioning were less important than evidence of political progress. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) concluded that leadership in devolved government on this basis was preferable to further concessions to Sinn Féin. Both parties assured their supporters that they had made no concessions on their mutually incompatible goals.
For governments, however, especially the British, the prospect of being divested of direct responsibility for Northern Ireland was the historic prize. The new realism rested on two assumptions: first, that the absence of violence was sufficient and urgent, whereas good relations were desirable but could be postponed; second, that while reconciliation was desirable, containment was essential.
If an aspiration to reconciliation had failed to secure the complete absence of violence, the new deal risked eliminating it without the prospect of underlying change. Over time, the strengths and weaknesses of this ‘new realism’ became obvious. The absence of any alternative to devolved government was clear, and violence on the old scale was contained. Reconciliation, however, was no longer a policy priority. Peace was now equated with the stability of the governing coalition. The first draft Programme for Government, launched in 2008 replaced the notion of ‘a shared future’ with ‘a better future’, and substituted economic prosperity for reconciliation as the primary policy goal. ‘Sharing’ clearly remained suspect in some political quarters, especially where it might impact upon political ideology or aspirations to traditional, exclusive national outcomes.
The result was an increasingly clear division between the cold peace on the ground and emphatic inter-governmental level insistence on reconciliation. The royal visit to Ireland in 2011 and the reciprocal Irish State visit to London in 2014 were designed to emphasise that both governments had now consigned Catholic-Protestant and post-imperial antagonism to history.
In Northern Ireland itself, however, inter-community government without reconciliation replaced permanent macro-crisis with recurrent mini-crises. Between 2010 and 2015, disagreements over unresolved cultural and historic issues required formal talks over: devolution of policing and justice; flags, parades and the past; budgets; and paramilitarism. It was only the threat that a crisis over flags would spoil the international image of harmony at the 2013 G8 summit that forced Sinn Féin and the DUP to produce any formal commitment to implementing the policies outlined in A Shared Future.
With the help of recurrent intervention, the order of the day has been ‘crisis-managed containment’. After recurrent periods of polarisation and paralysis, the peace of 2007 was loveless but intact, and violence has essentially been contained.